An Angsty Sunday. Too much stuff that has nothing to do with photography. Understanding that living in a popular city means constant change.

If only all of the construction was limited to downtown....

Sundays are harder than other days. I check in with my dad, who is dealing with dementia, by driving down to San Antonio and having lunch with him at the facility I selected to manage his care and general happiness. I check in with the what's left of the rest of the immediate family (older brother, younger sister) and hear the news of the week. And I make decisions about financial issues concerning my father's money and the management of my mother's estate. It seems like heavy stuff to me, full of responsibility and, in some cases, no good choices. I think the time on the road, the time spent sorting things out, and the time spent being a responsible agent are enough without added stress from things that crop up in my own neighborhood. 

Let me explain. 

I live west of downtown Austin in a bedroom community that just happens to have the best public schools in Texas, the highest household income in Texas and the fastest appreciating property values in Texas. When we bought our home nearly 23 years ago it was an absolute bargain (although, at the time, we thought the amount we paid was well above our comfort level). It was in a neighborhood that was filled with live oak and red oak trees and consisted mostly of three bedroom, two bathroom homes, custom built in the early 1970's; each on about a half acre of land. As a succession of billionaires moved their families into the zip code surrounding us the value of the houses everywhere soared and now seems to be accelerating even more. 

Our neighborhood has the envious distinction of being close in to downtown (about a ten minute drive during most of the day ---- all bets off during rush hours) but is up and away from the congestion and traffic. It's on Austin's high ground; the start of the Hill Country, and our little neighborhood is surrounded by islands of hyper prosperity in the form of gated communities with home prices that span the low $3 millions up to the $15 million range. What this means is that we have a big, big target painted on the roofs of our middle class houses by all sorts of real estate developers. Many of the residents in our little neighborhood are the original home buyers who are now hitting their eighties and nineties. They are in the process of transitioning to assisted living, or worse. So now there small (relatively speaking) homes are coming onto the market. These are homes that sold for a little more than $100,000 in the late 1970's which then sold for the low $200,000's in the 1990s. Developers are rushing to buy them just for the land. The houses and their fitness or condition or aesthetic value are meaningless to the hordes of custom builders engaged in the feeding frenzy. 

The developers have one consistent vision for all these elegant and perfectly sized homes. They want to buy them, tear them down completely (including demolishing the foundations) and then build the biggest houses for the cheapest costs they can engineer. Now the going price for a lot has just hit the +$1,000,000 mark. The reason is the lot size (and the schools, and the proximity to downtown, and the proximity to the super-rich) which is a result of our neighborhood being on individual septic systems. 

Some devious land shark had a slathering of lawyers lobby the county to allow much more square footage of new housing on the older lots by changing the septic field size requirements with the promise that each new home owner would enter into a contract with a septic services provider to pump out their septic tanks up to four times a year (this is something that most people with right sized homes only need to do once every four or five years.....). I'm sure that as soon as the first year is over the contracts will expire and the rest of the home owners will have little to no recourse against the hapless owners of the new monstrosity houses when they abandon their contracts and take their chances. 

We have one developer who bought a house in the neighborhood about three years ago and then tore it down and had the world's ugliest house built on the site. The neighbors call it the "Ramada Inn." He doubled the square footage and has lived there just long enough to reap the rewards of the tax laws for owner occupied sales. The house and lot he bought back three years ago was priced at $650,000 and he's just put that house on the market for $2.5 million. But the horrifying thing is his vision and actions going forward. He bought a house near us earlier this year, tore out the oaks that had been growing there for decades and decades in order to build the biggest house the county would allow him to build. Gone are the lovely trees and in their places another "Ramada Inn" style house is going up. Nearly to the lot lines. 

When I got home from San Antonio this afternoon my wife was almost in tears. The same rapacious real estate barbarian had just bought the house directly across the street from us. The renters who lived there ( and who were some of our very best neighbors...) were given thirty days to vacate. The new owner let them know that he couldn't wait to get them out so he could tear the beautiful four bedroom, two and a half bath home, built in the 1980's, to the ground. No doubt that he'll take out most of the fifty and sixty foot oak trees in order to realize his vision to.......make the most money he can with no regard for the aesthetics of the existing neighborhood. Austin, as we've known it, is crashing down around us as people with too much money and too little common sense seem hellbent on making this real estate market the very next San Francisco. Certainly they are in league with the devil.

There are hordes of like minded developers who are fixated on converting every wonderfully livable and affordable neighborhood in central Austin into an endless series of Mc Mansions. Horribly ugly houses with five to ten thousand square feet of interior space and three and four car garages. There is little we can do about it other than to reminisce about the great old days and to talk about where to move next. Greed and more greed. They are quickly killing off every aspect of Austin that brought people here in the first place. 

The Austin we knew is largely dead. Small and quixotic restaurants replaced by haute cuisine wannabes. The new land of $30 dollar cocktails and $125 ribeyes. Great locally owned shops gutted and re-actualized as yet another Starbucks or Gap. 

We're supposed to be thrilled that property values are skyrocketing. But the positive value only applies if you want to sell your house. If you want to stay put you are looking at ever escalating property taxes in a district that has some of the highest property tax percentages in the country. 

I guess we should abandon our (lovely, wonderful, perfect) house, take our million+ bucks and hit the road but there's no where else I'd rather live. I guess I'll just have to work harder as I get older in order to pay the taxes and stay. It's a no-win situation. Maybe we were engineered to grow old and die so younger, stupider people could destroy the nice parts of the world without us bothering them with our criticism. 

And yes, I get that this is very much a "first world" problem....


Joe said...

The sad part is that so many conflate private greed with overall social good, trash what's found to be lovely in its present state, and then wouldn't want to live in that situation in the end. So, of course, it's then time to move on and, perhaps, buy a McCabin in a (currently) less developed spot as a retreat away from what they have in fact wrought.

Rokrover said...

Welcome to insatiable, predatory capitalism that puts profit before people! My advice is to sell the house, purchase a modest RV then leisurely tour the country. Avoid commercial tourist traps to find solace in Nature where meditation will reveal fresh insight and opportunities. If nothing else, the landscape photographer in you will thrive without the burden of commercial constraints imposed by clients.

crsantin said...

Toronto, Canada is much the same. Forget about owning a home in the Toronto area if you are young and just starting out. Forget about owning even a condo in the city. The downtown area is now a complete concrete jungle. High rise condos everywhere. No rhyme or reason, no sense of planning or neighborhood. There's a corner, let's squeeze a 30 story condo onto it. The suburbs are just what you describe. Really nice sized lots with older homes. Someone buys the lot and tears down the home to put up a big new one. I don't think you can get a home in the city of Toronto for less than about a million dollars. I live north of Toronto, and even where I live, the average price is approaching one million. My home was built in 1984. It would have sold for little more than $100,000 at the time, maybe less than that. Ten years ago I bought it from the original owner, whose mortgage was long paid off, and he made good money on his home. I paid less than $500,000 for it. If I wanted to I could list my home for close to one million. My mortgage is not yet paid off. I feel for the younger generation who want to start a life, a family, and own a home. I'm not rich. My home is nice and the lot is generous but it's far from being a rich person's home. It's a regular working middle class home. Four bedrooms. Nice but not gigantic by any means. Both my wife and I work because you need two incomes to live anywhere near the Toronto area. We couldn't afford to buy our own home today. We'll have the mortgage paid off in about 7 years and we'll have some nice equity in the property, but how does a 30 yr old couple with a baby or two build a family in this market? My father raised a family of 4 on one income. My mother stayed home to care for her family and her home. That's just not possible today. In fact, we are close to the point where even two incomes isn't enough. What kind of a future does that leave for our children and grand children?

Lynn said...

Real estate developers are like a cancer on the our country. As Edward Abbey said years ago, " growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."
I guess I'm getting old.
How many empty strip malls are there around the country? How many u-store-it compounds? Preaching to the choir.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your community. I hope you find a way to replace/renew it. America is a strange place. Imagine a world where everyone understood that money =/= happiness.

Michael Matthews said...

A sad but unavoidable truth: things change. Unlike many, you have the enviable advantage of time and resources on your side. Yes, the new houses will be overbearing and garish. Some of the new residents will be loud and brimming with a sense of entitlement. The toxic fumes will be only in part a result of inadequate septic systems. Your advantage, though, lies in having time to plan the next move and make it a positive one. Spend a couple years evaluating choices and potential destinations. (Be very wary. Climates, meterological and political, can be deceptive unless observed over time.) Come to grips with the change as relocation rather than dislocation. Assume control. It’s yours if you choose to accept it.

Jack said...

We have similar issues in my town, but with a fewer zeros on the selling prices. In my neighborhood a house single story house was torn down and replaced with a towering 3 story building with an expanded building footprint close to the property lines. The selling price was more than 4 times the purchase price and the new house has 3x more square feet.

The neighborhood association is attempting to get a zoning overlay that will only allow new structures that blend in with existing houses.

While I support individual property owner rights, that has to be tempered by the aggregate good for the neighborhood. Defining that "aggregate good" is where the friction is (and the bribes begin).

Bonaventura said...


As one of your private projects, it might be good to do a series of the "Look at me, I'm RICH!!" houses. If it's any comfort, this seems to be a widespread affliction. It's here in the mid-Atlantic too. There are a lot of people all over the country with more money than taste.

Mitch said...

Sigh. If I could have only shown you the quaint locally owned shops and the compact neighborhoods of 1980's Saratoga Springs. There was some decay. But nary a dual Viking range-sporting kitchen nor a party deck adjoining a locking owner's suite in sight. Plus a welcome intense party of limited world class horseracing days unlike the stretched out "family friendly" endless gambling buffet of today. And open land along the highways as you drove from Albany to the Adirondacks. We'll not speak of how the same people took all of the small town New England-ness out of our favorite Northern VT ski area and tore up the woods and mountain views, replacing it with towering slopeside accommodations, golf courses and shuttle buses.

Locusts. Locusts among us who need an ersatz reward for their ill-gotten gains.